MONTREAL — Unions representing health-care workers in Quebec say they're concerned about the government's plan to force their members to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
"We are a little surprised by the severity of the measure," Jérôme Rousseau, vice-president of the province's largest nurses union, said in an interview Wednesday.
The health-care professionals represented by Fédération Interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, which include nurses and respiratory therapists, are the most vaccinated group in Quebec, he said, adding that between 92 per cent and 95 per cent of them have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Rousseau said he doesn't understand the government's motivation when so few health workers are unvaccinated.
On Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault announced that all health-care employees who spend more than 15 minutes with patients will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19. He said the penalties for refusing hadn't been decided yet but could include being prevented from working and not getting paid.
Speaking to reporters outside the legislature on Wednesday, Legault cited the high percentage of vaccination among health workers as the reason for the vaccine mandate. Health workers should know the importance of being vaccinated, he said.
More than 90 per cent of health-care workers have received at least one dose and 84.5 per cent are considered fully vaccinated, the province's public health institute said Wednesday afternoon.
Rousseau said he questions what will happen to workers who are unable to get vaccinated for medical reasons and what the consequences would be for people who refuse.
Jeff Bagley, president of Fédération de la Santé et des Services Sociaux, a union that represents a wide range of Quebec health-care workers, said the premier's announcement lacked detail. "Right now, we have a lot of questions," he said Wednesday, adding that his union also wants to know who will be exempt from the order and what the penalties would be.
Bagley said the government didn't consult with unions before announcing the vaccine mandate. And while Legault has said he will consult with opposition parties, Bagley said that's not sufficient.
Legault is "talking about a committee that will last a day and a half, and the opposition parties are the principal people that are going to be consulted, so I'm not even sure that we'll be consulted in that," Bagley said in an interview.
While he said vaccination is important, Rousseau said it is possible people who are vaccinated can spread COVID-19, meaning prevention, testing and personal protective equipment such as masks will remain important.
That's a concern for Bagley as well. "I'm worried that maybe the government is seeing (vaccines) as a silver bullet," he said, adding that it's "not a time to let up" on other measures intended to protect workers and patients.
Bagley's union is encouraging its members to get vaccinated, but he said he doesn't appreciate the coercive nature of the mandate. "If it's not applied right, it could have some negative consequences."
The professional order for doctors in Quebec, the Collège des médecins, said in an email it supports mandatory vaccination for health-care workers.
Meanwhile, the Quebec government cancelled two concerts on Wednesday that were intended to be experiments examining the impact of COVID-19 on large gatherings. Tourism Minister Caroline Proulx said in a news release that rising COVID-19 cases in the province make conditions too difficult to hold the two events that were to host a total of up to 25,000 people.
The concerts had been scheduled for the Quebec City area in September in collaboration with researchers at Université Laval.
Quebec reported 436 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and one more death attributed to the novel coronavirus.
The Health Department said hospitalizations remained stable compared with Tuesday, at 88, and 28 people were in intensive care, a rise of one. Officials said 41,426 doses of vaccine were administered Tuesday and the province's public health institute said 85.7 per cent of residents 12 and over have received at least one dose of vaccine and 76.1 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 18, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press